Kindergarten and COVID-19: Leon schools prepares for enrollment surge

Lynn Grant and her husband Jonathan sat on either side of their 6-year-old son Camden as the young boy tried to focus on a computer screen.

On the screen: Camden’s Buck Lake Elementary School kindergarten class. This was one of the many days in 2020 after school started where routine felt like a trap.

Camden fidgeted in his seat. He likely would leave the chair in a few minutes and Lynn or Jonathan would plead with him to come back. Lynn is a registered nurse. Jonathan is a history professor at Florida State University.

“We were exhausted about two hours into it,” Lynn said.

One of the parents often had 8-month-old baby Alec in their arms while they worked with Camden. Meantime, teenage daughter Laila took online classes from Lincoln High School in another room.

About a month into the 2020-21 school year, the Grants disenrolled Camden from Buck Lake Elementary School. He became part of the cohort of roughly 240 kindergarten-aged students district data estimates are missing from this year’s traditional public schools.

And now, many of them are coming back.

Leon schools prep for young students

Leon County Schools officials are predicting a much higher than usual number of new children will enroll in kindergarten classes for the 2021-22 school year.

That’s because district data show that many families — more than 200 children — may have held back, or “redshirted,” their kids to educate them in variations of homeschool programs this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parents often may do this if their children have summer birthdays and would be the youngest in their classes. But COVID-19 has been exceptional.

District administrators compare yearly data on kindergarten enrollment to predict staffing plans for the following year. But this year, with the gap of a couple of hundred kids, district officials foresee those students coming back to kindergarten classes, or — as in Camden’s case — flooding first grade.

“We are beginning that process right now. We’ll be working with our schools at the end of April and May to develop a (first-grade assessment) criteria for August,” Assistant Superintendent Gillian Gregory said.

Normally, enrollment ebbs and flows by small amounts. Three years ago, state data shows that LCS had 27 more students enroll in kindergarten than the previous year. Then in 2018, 23 fewer enrolled. In 2019, 12 fewer kindergarten students were enrolled in local elementary schools.

With the possible surge of students this year, even the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce is poised to help by pairing local businesses with kindergarten classes.

At a recent School Board meeting, Chamber board member Jay Smith told district officials about an initiative to connect local business owners with kindergarten class teachers. The business would adopt the classroom and help out with activities or supplies.

“It’s really the first big spot where business leaders can engage and be a part of supporting those teachers,” Smith said.

Once the district knows how many kindergarten classes schools will have, the Chamber can begin its adopt-a-classroom initiative, Smith said.

Since enrollment opens April 12 for kindergarten, for “right now, there are just too many unknowns,” director of elementary schools Sue Kraul said.

For some, at-home learning an advantage

The Grants were able to pool their resources with another family to employ a $15-per-hour tutor for Camden and another child for about five hours a day, four days a week.

With a tutor, Camden was able to better focus and got to spend time with a couple of kids his own age. He needed the structure of a familiar setting to go about learning how to print his letters.

On the weekends, the Grants tried to supplement his learning with informal history lessons — such as for Thanksgiving or Chinese New Year — and explored maps and played with a globe. But they struggled to keep Camden’s energetic personality focused.

“We never planned to do (all of this) … He needs someone to set limits,” Lynn said. “And it’s not all about learning how to do things, but also about learning how to sit in a classroom, to work with others. It’s not just about learning your letters … and (he’s) not getting (a full education) by being home.”

Scared to return to a classroom

The fear factor also continues to weigh on parents.

“(Camden) knows about the pandemic … he’s afraid he’s going to get it,” Lynn added, saying her son now is paranoid about washing his hands, which was not an activity he’d focused on before the pandemic. He’s also asked about whether he can be vaccinated, his mom said.

Lynn hopes to send Camden back in the fall to Buck Lake Elementary School — and into the first grade. But to reenter the system, Camden will have to test into the grade level.

“We think he’ll be OK, but it’s not an automatic thing,” Lynn said. Repeating kindergarten “would be very disappointing for me because we really tried to keep him up to where he’s supposed to be.”

Camden also is tall for his age and needs a learning challenge, she said.

This extraordinary year has been hard, Lynn said. The Grants have been parents, teachers, quick problem solvers, friends, disciplinarians, a nurse and a professor.

“This was something we never were expecting,” Lynn said. “We tried to do the best for our kid.”